What Is Wild Food and Should You Be Eating It?

Wild berries

If you’ve ever plucked a blackberry off a bush or fried up a fish you caught in a lake, you’ve dipped a toe into the world of wild food. Though the food system in the first world focuses on filling our plates via domesticated sources, there’s actually a lot to be said for sourcing and consuming foods found in the wild. In fact, some wild foods come with some surprising health benefits! (And you don’t have to be a hunter-gatherer to experience them.)

However, there are also some important concerns about the safety of eating non-domesticated fruits, veggies, and meats. Here’s a look at whether it’s a good idea to go wild with your food, and how to do it safely.

Wild vs. Cultivated Food

Wild food has no one official definition, and there’s certainly a spectrum of what “counts” in this category. In general, though, wild food can be any edible plant that grows without cultivation by humans, or any animal taken from its natural habitat for human consumption. This, of course, differs from the cultivated crops and domesticated animals that make up the vast majority of the standard Western diet.

Examples of Wild Foods

When you look closely, it’s easy to see that the Earth is teeming with wild foods. Wild game in the U.S. includes animals like deer, elk, goose, turkey, and many more. Plus, an array of fruits and vegetables grow untended in many places around the country. Numerous varieties of berry bushes produce edible fruits, while mushrooms line forest floors. Experts estimate that there are over 2,000 edible and medicinal mushroom varieties across the globe.

Even some of the weeds that grow in your yard may actually be wild greens you could add to a salad, such as dandelion or sorrel.

Nuts, herbs, tree fruits, and cactus pads (also called nopales) are additional examples of foods that grow on their own, even in urban areas.

Nutritional Differences of Wild vs. Cultivated Foods

There are numerous instances where wild foods are actually more nutritious than their cultivated counterparts. This likely has to do with their inherent defense strategies.

“Living in the wild is dangerous and stressful for all creatures, including plants. The stress that wild plants undergo causes them to develop protective mechanisms to help them survive.” -Kitty Broihier, MS, RD, LDN, of the Wild Blueberry Association of North America

Phytochemicals

Some plants do this by sprouting thorns or emitting an unpleasant smell, while others create bitter-tasting chemical compounds to deter predators. “These compounds are called phytochemicals, and research suggests that in lots of cases, those same bitter chemicals are ones that provide us with health benefits when we eat them regularly,” says Broihier.

Phytochemicals have been shown to reduce oxidative stress within cells, which can help prevent cancer, maintain youthful skin, and reduce inflammation in general.

Not only do wild foods often contain more phytochemicals overall, but they may also contain a wider variety of them. “This is the case with the family of blue pigments in wild blueberries (and other purple and blue foods) called anthocyanins,” Broihier explains. “Wild blueberries contain roughly 30% more anthocyanins than cultivated berries, and also contain a wider variety of them.” Anthocyanins have been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease and breast cancer, and appear to improve blood cholesterol levels and blood sugar metabolism.

Nutritional Diversity

Branching out from cultivated to wild foods also means you’re diversifying your diet—which can be a very good thing. “People who consume wild plants also are increasing the variety in their diet overall, and with variety comes a broader selection of nutrients in general,” Broihier notes. Plus, eating foods that grow nearby is a great way to participate in the local food movement. Fruits, veggies, nuts, and meats you source yourself cut back on the cost and environmental impact of transporting food long distances.

Safety Concerns About Wild Foods

When you buy food from the grocery store, you have the assurance that governmental authorities have kept a tight watch over its safety. But the same doesn’t apply to the mushroom you found on a hike or the deer your cousin shot last winter. Because sourcing wild food is largely unregulated (and unsupervised, when you do it yourself), it comes with some major safety concerns.

Hunting

Hunting and field dressing your own game requires education and pre-planning to ensure meat doesn’t spoil or cross-contaminate other foods. If you dress your own wild game, it’s important to follow best practices like wearing gloves and using ice packs to keep meat’s temperature below 41 degrees Fahrenheit.

Foraging

Similarly, any time you come across unfamiliar produce in the wild—as appetizing as it may appear—there’s a risk it may not be safe for consumption. Wild mushrooms alone poison thousands of people every year.

It's crucial to be 100% certain of a food’s identity and safety before eating it. If you decide to go foraging, bring a field guide and get educated about exactly what you’re looking for—and when in doubt, don’t eat it.

Finally, it’s a good idea to wash wild produce thoroughly before eating. No one wants to accidentally ingest harmful bacteria.

Wild Food Protections and Sourcing

Though it might sound nice for wild produce to be kept in its own safe preserves, the land where wild plants grow is not always protected by law. Nor is it necessarily legal to forage for your own mushrooms or berries willy-nilly.

Many public lands have very specific rules about whether (or how much) individuals are allowed to harvest wild foods. Always check with municipal, state, or national authorities before attempting to forage in a public area.

Hunting and fishing have their own regulations, too, so be sure to comply with your state’s game and fish department’s rules before you set off to hunt down dinner.

A Word From Verywell

The developed world may not look to wild foods as a primary source of nutrition, but in many second- and third-world countries, wild and foraged foods are a dietary staple. We might do well to follow this example. Wild foods can add variety, increase nutrients, and reduce the use of valuable environmental resources. When sourced safely, they can make a unique and healthy addition to your diet.

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